• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Sunday, April 22, 2018

    Jesús, Nuestro Señor (1971)

    Probably an entire book could be written about Jesus films from Mexico. The country's Catholic roots and relative poverty have meant their gospel adaptations have held a distinctly different flavour from the excess and Protestantism of their North American counterparts. Jesús de Nazareth (1942)María Magdalena (1946),  El Mártir del Calvario (1952) and El Processo de Cristo (1965) all have their distinctions, but it's perhaps the 1971 film Jesús, Nuestro Señor (Jesus Our Lord) that is of most interest today.

    A good deal of that is due to the choice of Claudio Brook as Jesus. Brook made his name in a string of films withLuis Buñuel. He had what many consider the title role in The Exterminating Angel (1962) and the lead role as something of a Christ figure in Simon del Deserto (Simon of the Desert,1965). Four years later, Buñuel had left Mexico, and Brook joined him in Europe to work on La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way), to many the director's most strongly anti-religious work. Whilst that time the Jesus role went to Bernard Verley, Brook played a bishop.

    Whilst Jesús, Nuestro Señor is a far more reverential work than Simon and La Voie Lactée (it still contains a couple of sequences which, if not quite as surreal as Buñuel's work, certainly seems unusual compared to most English language Jesus films.

    Two moments catch the eye in particular. When John the Baptist is executed, his head is brought on and laid before Herod with it's eyes open. Herod tries to evade it's stare. Eventually he even gets off his throne to walk out of the head's direct gaze, only to find it rotates slightly in order to follow him pacing increasingly anxiously back and forth.

    The other is one of those parts of the Bible that is usually considered a bit too much like something from a horror movie to be included in most Jesus films. According to Matthew 27:52-53, at the moment of Jesus' death, the tombs were opened and the saints came back to life. The metaphor sits rather awkwardly  alongside an earthquake and the tearing of the temple curtain as if wanting to drop a hint about the resurrection without giving it away. Here Jesus has already raised Lazarus, Jairus' daughter and the Widow of Nain's son, and the newly raised bodies arise in similar fashion, and start walking about, still bound in their grave-clothes.

    But the differences between Nuestro Señor and Hollywood offerings from the same period go far deeper than just these odd moments. There's clearly a gulf in budgets, which leads to the occasional ill-fitting beard and significantly smaller crowd scenes. This has a particular difference in the trial scene in Pilate's house. Their smaller numbers, and the way they are vociferously lead by the priests, belie any idea that this crowd is in someway representative of the Jewish nation as a whole. The space is crowded, but it's really only a handful of people who are in league with the establishment. Later the priests cruelly laugh at Jesus even after he's been flogged. Some will find that more troubling; others will see such a reaction to the suffering of one of their countryman as further evidence of their detachment from their people.

    There's also some interesting use of the camera, including the type of shots that mainstream Hollywood might have considered itself above. Occasionally the films zooms into a scene and then out again before focusing elsewhere. The shots draw attention to themselves, not least because they zoom in quickly, and sometimes unevenly, resisting moving at a dignified pace. There are also shots from low angles (see above), emphasising Jesus' power and various interesting high shots, including the "God shot" that captures that begins the dance of the seven veils.

    Comparing and contrasting the film's visuals and colour palette with its American rivals is also an interesting exercise. There are marked differences from the brightly coloured clothing the characters wear, through to the school play style costume an angel wears in for a shot of the nativity. Yet at the same time there are visual similarities such as the contrast of deep blue skies and Jesus' bright red robes, so reminiscent of King of Kings (1961). The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) began focusing on an invented fresco of Max von Sydow as Jesus.

    In contrast, Nuestro Señor starts with a series of famous paintings based on the life of Jesus, such as Filippo Lippi's "Adoration Of The Child" and El Greco's "Disrobing of Christ". Comparing the DVD and YouTube versions of these images to the originals, it's immediately obvious that the colours are now muted down to a sepia hue. It's unclear, though, to what the extent this is due to the quality of the print and the extent to which it's a choice by the filmmakers to make contrasting images more visually similar. In any case the bright, and by modern standards gaudy, colours that are prominent throughout the rest of the film, also recall various High Renaissance era paintings by Raphael and Michelangelo.

    The differences between this film and the classic Hollywood style also extend to its sound. The film's main theme, whilst still essentially orchestral, seems to lean more heavily on brass instruments, but adds in a number of less familiar instruments. We also hear the voice of Jesus inside the heads of those accusing the woman caught in adultery. This is an interesting development allowing the audience to experience different perspectives on Jesus in a short space of time. The use of these different perspectives would find a fuller experience a couple of years later with Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973). The film's aesthetics, then, are not wrong, or inferior, though they are limited by budget: they are just different from the more stately approach of the classic Hollywood epic. It makes for an interesting contrast.

    It's notable, too, the prominence the film gives to woman. In particular Mary, whom Jesus has a lengthy conversation with early on, practically the film's only invented scene. But also a wealthy looking Mary Magdalene; Herodias and her daughter; the widow of Nain; the woman caught in adultery; Pontius Pilate's wife Jairus' daughter; and Mary and Martha are given significant screen time. Because the film pieces together a series of scenes from the gospels, with relatively little embellishment, in a manner reminiscent of early silent Jesus films. The selection of scenes, then, speaks volumes, and it's notable that scenes featuring women, and those raised from the dead are particularly prominent.

    Brook carried on working until his death in 1995, mainly featuring in Mexican productions, though a role in Licence to Kill (1989) was a notable exception. His work on Cronos (1993) with Guillermo del Toro, means he is probably the only actor to have starred in films by both of Mexican cinema's leading lights. For his part, the director of Nuestro Señor's, Miguel Zacarías, went on to release a further two films based on the Gospels:  Jesús, el niño Dios (Jesus the Child of God), was released in the run up to Christmas that same year with its sequel Jesús, María y José (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 1972) arriving in cinemas just a few months later.

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